In this second installment of our look at Voyage Pittoresque ou Description des Royaumes de Naples et de Sicile, we’re focusing on Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non’s commentary on the sites he visited. Due to it’s central location in the Mediterranean basin, Sicily has been at the confluence of several cultural and political influences throughout it’s history, including classical Greek and Roman civilizations, Carthaginian invasion from North Africa, rule by Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans after the fall of the Roman empire, and personal union to the Spanish monarchy in Saint-Non’s day.
Like many well-born and educated travelers, Saint-Non turned to classical authors and historians for information about the sites he described, some of which were true to history and others that had become distorted by the passage of time. By and large, he was able to stick to the facts although he occasionally offered his own opinions. With the ongoing excavations of Roman sites on the Italian peninsula bringing that era of history to greater attention, the ancient temples, quarries, and other buildings in the vicinity of Agrigento proved of great interest to Saint-Non, and he spent the majority of his volume on Sicily describing them.
One of the least changed sites of ancient Agrigento is a region of rock and jagged peaks represented by this engraving. It forms the Rupe Atenea… and is probably the place Polybus had in mind with his description of the city of Agrigento: “The walls and the structures are in a high degree fortified by its excellent natural situation; for the walls are partly the steep, sublime rock itself, and partly the structure imposed thereon.”
At the peak of the rock the Temple of Minerva once stood, until it was burned by Gelias, the rich citizen of Agrigento, who retired there with all of his treasure when Imilcon invaded the abandoned city. He had hoped to find asylum there, but upon seeing that the Carthaginian fury held nothing sacred, he set himself on fire in the temple, and burnt it with all its treasure. Nothing remains today of the antique edifice save for a few fragments of the lower bleachers and the foundation of the temple’s atrium. Everything is so fragmented and destroyed, it is impossible to recognize anything, neither its form nor construction.
From the Temple of Minerva to that of Ceres and Proserpina, one sees only these rocks, of which the slope is so naked and steep that there is every reason to believe it was never covered with houses. It’s not far from the part of the ancient city where one can still find the quarries where the Agrigentines kept the Carthaginian prisoners they took at the Battle of Hymere (480 B.C.), and where the prisoners served by extricating the stones with which the Sicilians built most of their temples.
These quarries of Agrigento offer little that is of interest save their size. The excavation is now partly cultivated and forms a great enclosure, much like a pool. The reservoirs have now been made into storehouses. The path that leads to the Temple of Ceres and Proserpina, which is the narrowest and steepest of all the paths, is still as it was formerly. It cuts halfway up through the rocks, and there is every reason to believe that this is truly the ancient path, because one can still see traces of the cart wheels which passed along the ascent to the Temple.
During Saint-Non’s visit to the city, Palermo’s Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was just beginning a phase of renovations to add neoclassical elements to the structure. Saint-Non’s illustrations were based on the architect’s drawings of the projected structure, and bore little resemblance to the church he actually saw. The cathedral’s dome, for example was only completed after 1781, after Voyages Pittoresque was published. Like many aesthetes, Saint-Non did not shy from offering pointed commentary on the cathedral’s features, particularly the sometimes discordant relationships between the various building campaigns, which spanned from the Gothic to late Baroque. The appreciation for this visual record of change didn’t truly begin until seventy years later, when John Ruskin delineated between “preservation” and “restoration” in The Seven Lamps of Architecture of 1849.
We arrived in Palermo on July 2, ten days before the famous Feast of Saint Rosalie—an ancient citizen of the city, whose remains were dug up in a grotto of Mount Pellegrino, in the middle of the tombs and gigantic bones of the Saracens buried in the same vicinity. Her remains were happily brought back to Palermo, where they have performed incessant miracles, chief among them the moving to celebration, for five whole days of every year, some of the most grave people of Europe.
We first visited the cathedral, “La Matrice,” for thus are called all Cathedrals in Italy. It’s exterior is one of the most beautiful monuments from the twelfth century, particularly for the extraordinary details of its gothic architecture, which are infinite, and give this vast edifice and its surroundings a certain Asiatic character which quite pleased us. The church was built by Gauthier, the Archbishop of Palermo, in the reign of William II. The interior does not quite correspond to the outside. Although the plan is quite beautiful the decoration mixes genres in a manner full of flaws.
Each pillar, composed of four short paired columns, bears a gigantic arch surmounted by a large arcade, and ending in a large gateway. The rest of the interior, which threatens to run to ruin, does not gain much by using the same type of column, which already spoiled the first building campaign, and are continuing to spoil the second. They are too short to serve as adequate decoration of a large space, and always hinder any project undertaken. However, as they are of granite, and a great prize in the imagination of the people of Palermo, who absolute want to see them used in this reconstruction, they will be used in the same manner for this rebuilding as they were in the first.
The Decorative Arts Trust will be traveling to Sicily from October 17-25, and again from October 27-November 4. Stay tuned for updates from these study trips!